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Home Action Legislative Action Background Info History of SOA/WHINSEC: The Congressional Battle that Changed a Name
History of SOA/WHINSEC: The Congressional Battle that Changed a Name PDF Print E-mail

The Department of Defense maintains a training college for future Latin American military leaders at Fort Benning, Georgia known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation ("WHINSEC"). Congress created WHINSEC as a replacement for the School of the Americas ("SOA"), which was founded in 1946 when the United States Army established the Latin American Training Center &endash; U.S. Ground Forces in Panama. The program expanded and was renamed the U.S. School of the Americas in 1963. In 1984, the School left Panama and moved to Fort Benning. After years of negative press coverage and mounting public pressure against SOA, Congress officially closed the School of the Americas in October 2000. Seeking a new start, Congress created WHINSEC as part of the Floyd D. Spence National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2001.

Public watchdog groups, lead principally by the School of the Americas Watch ("SOA Watch"), began criticizing SOA in the early 1990s. The 1989 killing of six Jesuit priests, their co-worker, and her teenage daughter in El Salvador incited SOA Watch to organize and protest the School. Nineteen of the twenty-six individuals eventually implicated in the murders were SOA graduates. After learning this information, concerned citizens inquired into the military practices being taught at SOA. They wanted to know what moral principles SOA was instilling in its students and whether the School was teaching future Latin American military leaders to abuse human rights.

103rd Congress: The House of Representatives First Examines SOA.

Anti-SOA legislation was first introduced in the House of Representatives in 1993 after a Newsweek article published that summer, titled "Running a 'School for Dictators,'" brought national attention to the School. On August 6, 1993, Rep. Martin Meehan (D-MA) addressed the House in order to notify other representatives about the track record of SOA graduates. He spoke of the Newsweek article and also expressed concern about human rights violations perpetrated in El Salvador by former students. Rep. Meehan explained that "[i]f the School of Americas held an alumni association meeting, it would bring together some of the most unsavory thugs in the Western Hemisphere." He did not suggest a bill or an amendment, the Representative merely wanted to ensure that the House was aware of SOA and to urge it to take a closer examination of the School.

The following month, Rep. Joseph Kennedy (D-MA) offered an Amendment to the Department of Defense Appropriations Act of 1994. This Amendment would have reduced the Army operation and maintenance account by $2.9 million, the amount dedicated to running SOA. Rep. Kennedy explained that the intent of the Amendment was to close the School.

A lively floor debate in the Committee of the Whole ensued. Most of the arguments that would resurface year-after-year in Congress, from both SOA supporters and critics, came up during this debate. Surveying the points made on both sides provides a framework for the opposing views that eventually would compromise to close SOA and open WHINSEC .

Rep. Kennedy initiated the 1993 debate by listing infamous SOA graduates. He spoke of Leopoldo Galtieri, the ex-head of the Argentine Junta; Roberto D'Aubuisson, organizer of Salvadoran death squads; and, Manuel Noriega, whom he noted was currently serving time in a U.S. Federal Prison. It was crucial for Rep. Kennedy to mention notorious graduates that other members of the House would recognize by name. Although some representatives may not have been familiar with Galtieri or D'Aubuisson, very few could have been ignorant of the infamous Noriega, given that the United States had invaded Panama in December 1989 to capture him.

Rep. Kennedy also provided statistics citing numerous SOA graduates involved in severe human rights abuses. For example, he noted a 1992 report by a coalition of human rights groups charging two hundred forty-six Columbian officers with human rights abuses. Of those, one hundred had connections with SOA as either students or instructors. Of course, Kennedy also mentioned the infamous 1989 killing of the Jesuits and their housemates in El Salvador.

The slayings in El Salvador have become symbolic to opponents of the school. In response to the killings, SOA Watch has held annual vigils at the gates of Fort Benning to mark the anniversary of the murders and to call for the School's permanent closure. This year, on November 15-17, anywhere from 6,500 to 10,000 people gathered outside the School to demonstrate their continuing commitment to this issue. In Congress too, this one example of military brutality in El Salvador has resurfaced year-after-year and was still percolating in recent debates on Capitol Hill. The slaying of the Jesuits continues to be seen as a paradigmatic example of the horrendous abuses some SOA graduates tend to commit.

Leading the opposition to Rep. Kennedy's 1993 Amendment was Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-GA) from the Second District of Georgia, which includes Fort Benning. Rep. Bishop had an understandable motive to fight for the School because it brought funds, jobs, and even some military prestige to his district. In this debate, he eventually mounted a successful opposition to the Kennedy Amendment.

Rep. Bishop initiated his argument by referring to the "uninformed rhetoric" employed by those seeking to close SOA and then attempted to counterbalance their arguments. To illustrate that the School had produced some good results, for example, Rep. Bishop cited his own statistics. He explained that SOA's "graduates include 10 Presidents, 38 ministers of defense and state, 71 commanders of armed forces, and 25 service chiefs of staff in Latin America." While this record showed that alumni have attained high status in their civilian governments and militaries, it did not address the issues inherent in the statistics and anecdotal evidence Rep. Kennedy presented. Merely because an individual attains power in the military or government does not preclude that person from committing human rights abuses, ignoring democratic principles, or engaging in narcotics trafficking. After all, Manuel Noriega was President of Panama until the United States removed him from power.

In a debate the following year over a similar amendment to close SOA, Rep. Kennedy partially responded to Rep. Bishop's argument that many SOA graduates have attained high status in their home countries. Rep. Kennedy explained that of the 10 heads of state that SOA advocates included on their roster of positive results, not one ascended to power through democratic election and in many cases these individuals actually overthrew the civilian governments that brought them into power.

In the 1993 debate, Rep. Bishop also attempted to show that SOA was aware of some of its past failings and that it was making an effort to change. He explained that "[h]uman rights awareness is an indispensable element in the school's curriculum." While he cited no specific classes, Rep. Bishop referred to "training in law and law welfare, the Geneva and Hague Conventions, and military law and ethics." However, he gave no indication how these issues were taught or how many students actually enrolled in the classes teaching these fundamental principles.

Rep. Kennedy had conceded earlier in the debate that SOA recently added a few hours of human rights training to its courses. Nonetheless, he possessed evidence indicating that the mood of the school's instructors did not foster an atmosphere in which the promotion of human rights would be effective. He had met with a human rights expert invited to speak at SOA. According to Rep. Kennedy, the expert "came away convinced that the School's instructors, many of them from Latin America, were either indifferent or hostile to [the expert's] message, and that the school should be closed."

Another argument put forth by Rep. Bishop was that SOA's charter directed it to conduct a doctrinally sound training program that would promote military professionalism, foster a greater cooperation among multinational military forces, and expand the Latin American militaries' knowledge of U.S. customs and traditions, especially democracy. This assertion hardly addressed the issue. Organizations can stray from their charters. Just because SOA may have been founded with a positive purpose to bring peace and democracy to Latin America does not mean that the School has lived up to its mission. In fact, earlier in the debate Rep. Kennedy had presented compelling evidence to the contrary.

Obviously, the deliberations involved many other representatives expressing their views on the Amendment as well. Rep. Meehan, for example, read an excerpt from a letter he received from the Department of Defense in response to his question asking "why [the U.S.] should be spending millions of dollars to train foreign soldiers who use the skills they learn at the School of the Americas to brutalize their own people?" The Secretary of Defense responded, "[t]o assume that one short course in the United States can counteract perhaps contradictory messages absorbed over a lifetime from within one's own culture and elsewhere overestimates the missions and power of School of the Americas training."

The Secretary's argument is frequently espoused by SOA defenders. They maintain that the School does not teach students to behave in these objectionable manners. According to this theory, much of the School's failings stem from its inability to alter the attitudes of some students already thoroughly indoctrinated in abusive, undemocratic military philosophies before coming to the School. There is probably some veracity to this argument. Undoubtedly, some students attending SOA had a propensity for violence before they set foot at Fort Benning. In an interview with Steven Schneebaum, Vice-Chairman of WHINSEC's Board of Visitors, he explained that a number of the people who perpetrated bad acts have come from military cultures where this type of behavior is accepted. Furthermore, selection by one's military or government to attend class at SOA has been seen as somewhat of an honor. The individuals recommended by their countries for admission to the School were likely to have been selected because they had bright futures in their militaries. In many Latin American militaristic environments, the individuals with optimistic futures are those with reputations for action, who may tend to employ tactics objectionable to a democratic society.

While this is a valid claim that may partly explain why so many SOA graduates have committed atrocious crimes against humanity, it also raises another recurring question. Critics want to know why these dangerous individuals were confirmed by U.S. Embassies to attend SOA in the first place. The SOA detractors have called for more extensive background checks on students before being admitted to the program. Even in the original 1993 House debate, some SOA supporters suggested that altering the recruitment process would be a positive change. For example, Rep. Mac Collins (R-GA) attacked the Kennedy Amendment as missing the mark. He maintained that the School's curriculum and mission were sound. If any changes were necessary, according to Rep. Collins, they should have occurred in the State Department because this was the body responsible for selecting students. He suggested there be an "even stricter criteria on which soldiers are chosen for the program . . . [and that] countries that send a high percentage of students later convicted of human rights abuses should be restricted accordingly." It is quite likely that SOA would have produced fewer human rights abusers if the State Department had done a better job screening out applicants predisposed to this behavior.

Another line of reasoning spouted in congressional debates each year by SOA supporters, the Ivy League argument, was first introduced in the 1993 House debate. Rep. Robert Livingston (R-LA) suggested that following the logic of SOA critics, "the Wharton School of Finance could be blamed because Michael Milken went there." Milken, the infamous investment banker, plead guilty to six felony counts of securities fraud, was given a lifetime ban on his license to operate in the securities industry, and was sentenced to ten years in prison. Rep. Livingston was implying, by analogy, that it is improper to blame a highly respected educational institution simply because a few graduates may have used the knowledge gained there for dishonorable purposes. Rep. Kennedy responded to this argument by indicating that if any other U.S. schools had SOA's track record, producing such a substantial number of human rights abusers, that they would have to be closed as well.

Year-after-year, SOA supporters in Congress bring up infamous characters in the news, recite the schools that these individuals have graduated from, and imply that it would be absurd to close these schools based on one or two bad apples. In a 2000 debate regarding an amendment to close SOA, for instance, Rep. Sonny Callahan (R-AL) mentioned the Unabomber and indicated that it would be ridiculous to close Harvard merely because Ted Kaczynski went there. Rep. Joseph Moakley (D-MA), the author of the 2000 Amendment, responded that "we did not teach the Unabomber how to make bombs at Harvard." SOA critics also note that SOA has not produced one or two bad characters. Instead, they maintain, it has consistently graduated individuals who use the skills learned at the School to brutalize people in their home countries.

Another major anti-SOA argument centers on the idea that the School has outlived its purpose and "with its history and tradition of abusive graduates, stands as a barrier to establishing a new and constructive relationship with Latin American militaries after the cold war." SOA was originally developed to help spread democracy to Latin America. SOA detractors in Congress spoke of the need to close or reform the institution so that future Latin American leaders could be taught the skills necessary to succeed in a post-Cold War world. In the 1993 House debate over the Kennedy Amendment, Rep. Meehan explained that "the primary objective of U.S. foreign policy in the Western Hemisphere since World War II&emdash;to contain the expansion of Soviet influence&emdash;has been plant-supplanted by the need to encourage respect for democracy and human rights along with economic development and an end to narcotics trafficking." He also maintained that "[he did] not think we should be educating violent criminals in techniques they can use to violate the basic rights of innocent people." If the U.S. insists on training Latin American soldiers, according to SOA critics, the education should be rooted in principles of human rights and democracy, not war tactics.

At the conclusion of the 1993 debate over Rep. Kennedy's Amendment to close SOA, when the recorded vote was tallied, the Kennedy Amendment lost 174 to 256. Although anti-SOA activists were handed a defeat, it was also a significant victory for supporters of the movement. For the first time, Congress had taken a serious look at the School and questioned its necessity. That Rep. Kennedy was able to garner a significant amount of support, 174 votes, for a first attempt to close SOA, was a triumph in itself.

Rep. Kennedy made a second attempt to close SOA in 1994 by introducing an Amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1995. The debate over the Amendment was fairly similar in form and content to that which took place over the 1993 Amendment, with most of the original arguments and evidence being rehashed by both sides. However, some key additions surfaced as well. Representatives supporting SOA mentioned new policies that the School and State Department had implemented in response to the public and congressional outrage over SOA's past graduates. Rep. Bishop explained that the School had recently formed a policy review board to scrutinize SOA's courses and to ensure that human rights training was an integral part of the curriculum. SOA called this group the Board of Visitors, which eventually would serve for two terms, one from 1995 to 1998 and another from 1998 until Congress officially closed the School in 2000. The extent to which this group fostered real change at SOA is debatable.

A new tactic utilized by SOA supporters in the 1994 debate, to counterbalance the negative anecdotal evidence offered by SOA critics, was to introduce their own anecdotal evidence demonstrating that SOA graduates have been beneficial for Latin America. For example, Rep. Bishop spoke of Jose Gallardo Roman, Ecuador's Minister of Defense. He noted that General Gallardo strongly supported democratic principles and respected human rights. Rep. Bishop illustrated this contention by noting that Gallardo "signed an accord with the Latin American Association on Human Rights to begin a sweeping human rights training program throughout the Armed Forces." While it was an encouraging assertion that some SOA graduates have used their training to make positive reforms in their home countries, anti-SOA activists did not doubt this to be the case. Instead, the activists were arguing that although the School may have produced some positive results, it has failed altogether too many times to justify its continuance.

Rep. Martin Hoke (D-OH) presented a novel argument in the 1994 debate by attacking the School not based on its record, but by classifying it as unnecessary defense spending. He asked members of the House, especially Republicans, how they could vote to eliminate funding for the ICC, the National Helium Reserve, and the honey bee subsidy, among other things, and continue to support SOA. For Rep. Hoke, to support a smaller federal government, representatives needed to cancel this "Georgia defense pork."

During the deliberations surrounding the 1994 Amendment, Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-AZ) addressed the argument that SOA admits students with substandard human rights records. He explained that seven months earlier "the United States [had] strengthened the selection process for candidates seeking to attend the SOA. This process includes checking names by U.S. intelligence agencies and State Department security officers." While this was positive reform, it was something the U.S. should have been doing all along. There was little solace for anti-SOA activists that the government would now be giving candidates more thorough background checks.

Another key addition to the debate was a highly visible public protest at the Capitol to coincide with the House's deliberations over the 1994 Amendment. Rep. Kennedy noted that, "we see just on the House steps, Father Roy Bourgeois, who has gone on a hunger strike for 40 days, to demonstrate his personal commitment and the commitment of millions of others that our association with the school ought to end." This direct action by SOA Watch, its founder Father Roy Bourgeois, and other concerned citizens was crucial because it showed Congress that many constituents were concerned about SOA. Other congressman too, such as Rep. Hamburg, noted that individuals from his "district [have] joined with people from across the country on the steps of the Capitol for the past month, fasting against continued funding of the School."

A final important development from the 1994 debate was that SOA critics swayed at least one representative who had voted against the 1993 Amendment. Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) explained that the previous year she "voted against this amendment because [she] believed that it was important to try and impress upon the Latin American military officers who trained at the school American values, especially respect for human rights and democracy." It appears that Rep. Lowey had previously subscribed to the pro-SOA rhetoric. In supporting the 1994 Amendment, however, she noted that "it is now clear . . . that the school has failed to achieve those objectives." Perhaps, upon further investigation, Rep. Lowey realized that SOA was not exactly the school that its supporters portrayed it to be. Unfortunately for anti-SOA activists, however, Rep. Kennedy's 1994 Amendment failed 175 to 217.

104th Congress: Congressional Support for Anti-SOA Legislation Diminishes.

In 1995, Rep. Kennedy attempted to attack the School using a different approach. Instead of calling solely for its closure by amendment, he sponsored a bill that would have closed the School and established a U.S. Academy for Democracy and Civil-Military Relations to take its place. This proposed educational institution would have provided training to Latin American civilian and military personnel through seminars, roundtable discussions, conferences, and a guest instructor program. It would have been committed to teaching respect for democracy and human rights and also would have had oversight from an advisory committee to review its curriculum.

The Bill was referred to the House Committee on National Security, but no action was taken. While this was another failure, it was an interesting attempt to bridge the gap between the pro- and anti-SOA factions. It addressed some concerns of SOA critics because it would have closed the School. It attended to pro-SOA interests in that the new school would have ensured that the U.S. military could still have a hand in the training of future Latin American leaders. Apparently, the House was not interested in this sort of compromise at this point. Nonetheless, the Bill foreshadowed the type of agreement that Congress eventually would make in 2000 when it closed SOA and replaced it with WHINSEC.

In 1996, partly due to the political atmosphere in the Republican-controlled House, Rep. Kennedy knew that he could not garner the type of support he received in 1993 and 1994. Nonetheless, he offered an Amendment to the Foreign Operations, Export Financing, and Related Programs Appropriations Act of 1997, which would have removed all SOA funding. On the floor, Rep. Kennedy briefly discussed the School's past shames but withdrew the Amendment before bringing it to a vote, so as to preserve the "capability of winning on this issue in the future." Even knowing that he would not take the Amendment to a vote, Rep. Kennedy still presented the issue to his fellow representatives, thereby keeping SOA atrocities fresh in their minds.

105th Congress: The House Takes a Renewed Interest in SOA; the Senate Gets Involved.

The 105th Congress, lasting from 1997 through 1998, was a busy time for SOA legislation, with the anti-SOA faction attaining significant moral victories. It is quite possible that the release of SOA training manuals in September 1996 may have sparked renewed interest in the issue. For example, in a speech supporting an amendment to close SOA, Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-GA) noted a Pentagon report on certain training manuals employed at SOA between 1982 and 1991:

"According to the Pentagon's own excerpts, School of the Americas students were advised to imprison those from whom they were seeking information; to 'involuntarily' obtain information from those sources&emdash;in other words, torture them; to arrest their parents; to use 'motivation by fear'; pay bounties for enemy dead; execute opponents; subvert the press; and use torture, blackmail, and even injections of truth serum to obtain information. These tactics come right out of an SS manual and have no place in a civilized society."

It was difficult for Congress to ignore this hard evidence that SOA training had encompassed the very abusive methods many alumni later employed in their home countries after graduation.

In 1997, responding to mounting public disapproval of the School, Rep. Esteban Torres (D-CA) offered an Amendment to the Foreign Operations, Export Financing, and Related Programs Appropriations Act of 1998 that would have removed all SOA funding. For the first time, a congressman other than Rep. Kennedy introduced an amendment to close SOA. It was defeated by the narrow margin of 210 to 217. Even though it did not pass, the introduction of this Amendment showed the House that closing SOA was more than just Rep. Kennedy's pet issue. Other congressman were finally getting involved as well and sponsoring their own anti-SOA amendments.

This same year, Rep. Kennedy also offered an amendment to close SOA. Like the Torres Amendment, it would have suspended all funding for the School. It too failed, this time 201 to 212. The House debates over these two amendments involved the usual rhetoric from both sides. But as a new addition to the discussions, SOA supporters were also forced to defend the School from attacks against the training manuals. For the most part, their defense boiled down to an admission that the manuals should never have been employed, but that they were no longer in use and that SOA detractors had taken many of the objectionable teachings out of context.

SOA supporters in the House also charged SOA critics of "continuing year after year, rehashing the same ground, regurgitating the same arguments over and over again." One representative noted that the debate should have been timely, not timeless, and that the time to debate this issue was in the early 1990s when the School was in need of serious reform. As of 1997, the supporters maintained, SOA had implemented significant changes in that every course (except for the computer course) had four hours of mandatory human rights instruction; every instructor was certified to teach human rights; and, the School had an oversight Board of Visitors on which strong human rights advocates served.

Despite mounting frustration by the pro-SOA faction, many congressmen continued to attack the School, calling for its closure. During this same Congress, in addition to sponsoring an amendment to close SOA, Rep. Kennedy also introduced a bill to accomplish the same task. It was referred to the House Committee on National Security but was never referred out of committee nor brought to a vote.

Another first for the anti-SOA campaign during the 105th Congress was that the Senate finally got involved in the issue. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), who served in the House from 1983 to 1997 and who has served in the Senate since then, introduced a bill to close SOA. In a speech supporting his bill, Sen. Durbin discussed the human rights records of past graduates, the training manuals released in 1996, and the shame SOA brought to the U.S. The bill was referred to the Senate Armed Services Committee where it sat without action. Although the bill was never brought to a vote, Sen. Durbin had finally introduced the issue to Senators who previously had been unwilling to address SOA's many troubles. It is interesting that the Senate had refused to get involved with the issue until Sen. Durbin, who had supported the School's closure while a member of the House, finally brought it to their attention when he moved to the Senate in 1997.

At the close of the 105th Congress in 1998, Rep. Kennedy retired from the House of Representatives. Since 1993, he had put forth a valiant fight to close SOA. While he was not there to take part in it, Sen. Kennedy's desire to close SOA would be partially fulfilled in the 106th Congress.

106th Congress: SOA Closes; WHINSEC Is Created.

Rep. Moakley took over where Rep. Kennedy had left off. In 1999, he introduced a bill to close SOA, which was referred to the Armed Services Committee. In a brief speech supporting his bill, Rep. Moakley referred to the 1989 killing of the Jesuits, the shame that SOA brought to America, and the fact that U.S. citizens were spending $18 million every year to keep the School operational. Although the bill had 156 co-sponsors, it never made it out of the Armed Services Committee.

Rep. Moakley also sponsored an Amendment to limit assistance to SOA, but not to close the School. The debate over this amendment resembled the many that had preceded it over the years. Like usual, SOA supporters noted that the School had been trying very hard to institute reform and that it had made real progress in this effort. For example, Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-NY) explained that his staff delegation had visited SOA twice over the preceding year and was pleased to see that the School had strengthened its curriculum in response to Congressional oversight. He mentioned the new SOA policy whereby every student in all fifty-five courses received between eight and forty hours of formal human rights instruction, depending on the length of each course. In addition, Rep. Bishop indicated that the Board of Visitors, which included some "noted human rights figures," was providing excellent oversight and would have known if SOA offered instruction in abusive or undemocratic techniques.

An argument brought forth by SOA detractors maintained that although SOA may have instituted some new human rights courses, only a handful of students were taking them. For example, one of the very few human rights courses offered at this time was the "Train the Trainer Qualification Course." Rep. Tom Campbell (R-CA) explained that as of 1999, no one was taking it. Also, according to Rep. Campbell, the "Command in General Staff" course, a class teaching peace and democracy, had only 28 enrollees in 1998 and 1999. Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-GA) summed it up when she proclaimed that of all the "courses offered at the SOA, only five are related to human rights or democracy and less than ten percent of the students took those last year. None have taken the human rights trainer course."

After it came to a vote, the Moakley Amendment survived 230 to 197. For the first time, the House had passed legislation condemning SOA. Although the Amendment would have cut only about 10 percent of SOA's funding, it was seen as a monumental victory for the anti-SOA movement. Unfortunately for SOA detractors, however, the Senate did not approve a similar cut. The proposal to stem SOA funding was defeated by one vote in the House-Senate conference committee.

The Senate attempted to take action against SOA in 1999 as well when Sen. Durbin introduced a bill to close SOA. He obtained the same result as his previous effort sponsoring anti-SOA legislation&emdash;the bill was referred to the Senate Armed Services Committee where it sat without any further action.

SOA finally closed in 2000 as part of the Floyd D. Spence National Defense Authorization Act for 2001. In this same bill, Congress established the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. While some provisions were written into the bill to make WHINSEC different from SOA, it remains to be seen how significant or effective they will prove to be in the future. As one example, the Secretary of Defense is authorized to operate WHINSEC, while SOA was commanded by the Secretary of the Army. The bill, however, also permits the Secretary of Defense to designate a secretary of a military department to carry out these responsibilities. It is not surprising that the Department of Defense selected the Secretary of the Army as its executive agent. Thus, WHINSEC is still essentially operated by the Secretary of the Army, just like SOA.

As another example, WHINSEC's congressionally mandated mission is to provide professional education and training to military, law enforcement, and civilian personnel from Western Hemisphere nations. Theoretically, WHINSEC is supposed to promote peace and strong international bonds by teaching democratic values and respect for human rights, while introducing foreign students to U.S. customs and traditions. The mandated curriculum for each student includes at least eight hours of instruction on human rights, the rule of law, due process, civilian control of the military, and the role of the military in a democratic society. While instruction in human rights and democratic values is important, eight hours is insufficient given the amount of time foreign soldiers may spend at Fort Benning and the potential difficulties inherent in altering their preconceived notions about human rights and democracy. Furthermore, SOA already mandated eight hours of human rights training even before WHINSEC was created. Requiring eight hours of instruction does not substantially increase student exposure to these important teachings.

As another example, to acknowledge SOA's outdated purpose after the Cold War, Congress provided that the curriculum may include leadership development, counter drug operations, peace support operations, disaster relief, and any other matters that the Secretary deems appropriate. While this appears to be a decent list of important, post-Cold War fundamentals, it is somewhat vague and possibly gives the Secretary too much latitude to institute programs that may teach objectionable subject matters.

Congress also set up a Board of Visitors ("BOV") to provide WHINSEC with outside oversight. The BOV includes the Chairmen and ranking minority members of the Committees on Armed Services in the House and Senate, or their designees; six persons designated by the Secretary of Defense including, to the extent practicable, persons from academia and the religious and human rights communities; one person designated by the Secretary of State; the senior military officer responsible for training and doctrine of the Army; and, the commander of the unified combatant command having geographic responsibility for Latin America, or that officer's designee.

Again, while it is crucial to provide outside oversight, the BOV is not a considerable improvement over the type of oversight provided to SOA, which had a Board of Visitors as well. Nonetheless, the new Board does have some positive aspects to it. First, unlike the original BOV, it is congressionally mandated and will be required to meet every year. Second, it is composed of individuals with widely varied viewpoints, including Senators, Representatives, academicians, military leaders, and persons concerned with human rights and religious issues. After surveying their credentials, the individuals selected to serve on the current BOV seem to be well qualified. To his credit, the Secretary of Defense appears to have picked some respected members of the academic, religious, and human rights communities for the inaugural WHINSEC BOV.

As part of its statutory duties, within sixty days of its annual meeting at Fort Benning, the BOV must submit a report to the Secretary of Defense detailing its views and recommendations for WHINSEC. This information should then be included in an annual report that the Secretary of Defense will present to Congress regarding WHINSEC's operations. Hopefully, in this fashion, Congress will be made aware of any significant problems with WHINSEC's curriculum or operations. Nonetheless, it remains to be seen how much information the Secretary will provide to Congress.

Steven Schneebaum, Vice-Chairman of WHINSEC's Board of Visitors, seems quite pleased with the composition of the current Board and with WHINSEC in general. Mr. Schneebaum, an attorney, has significant human rights experience, including fourteen years with the International Human Rights Law Group and four years of service with the original SOA Board of Visitors. The WHINSEC BOV recently completed its inaugural inspection at Fort Benning on December 12-13, 2002.

Regarding the human rights instruction, Mr. Schneebaum explains that much of the teaching is done through the case study method. Students study past military atrocities such as Mi Lai, the 1989 murders of the Jesuits in El Salvador, and the massacre at El Mozote. WHINSEC utilizes case studies because the School believes them to be the most effective means to show students what may happen when military officers ignore human rights principles. The bottom line, according to Mr. Schneebaum, is that the human rights program is solid and that students are getting the message.

Regarding the other substantive courses, most WHINSEC professors are U.S. military officers with assistant instructors in many classes being foreign military officers. As was the case at SOA, all classes at WHINSEC are conducted in Spanish. Mr. Schneebaum maintains that most WHINSEC courses teach non-classical military techniques. They offer instruction in counter drug operations, natural disaster response, police activities, and peacekeeping operations, among others. And, of course, the infamous SOA torture manuals are not utilized at WHINSEC. Thus, according to the BOV's Vice-Chairman, it initially appears that WHINSEC is living up to its congressionally mandated mission.

In its inaugural report, the BOV will suggest to the Secretary of Defense that WHINSEC improve its instruction on civilian-military relations. Mr. Schneebaum noted that the School's curriculum does not focus enough on subordination of the military to civilian control. He does not, however, fault WHINSEC for this deficiency. Given SOA's dismal human rights record, WHINSEC was extremely concerned with its human rights program and expended a great deal of time and resources into its development. Other important areas of instruction, such as the military's role in a democratic society, took a back burner to human rights training because this was the primary concern of Congress and the public. Mr. Schneebaum claims that WHINSEC will be addressing this problem over the next few months.

One major concern that WHINSEC does not address is the tracking of graduates. On its website, WHINSEC maintains that U.S. law prohibits it from tracking foreign students when they return to their home countries. A tracking program would be an important safeguard because it would demonstrate whether WHINSEC graduates perform better than SOA graduates with regards to respecting democratic principles and human rights. I was unable to uncover any U.S. laws that prohibit the tracking of foreign students at Department of Defense schools. Even Mr. Schneebaum disagrees with WHINSEC's claim and does not believe that any such law exists.

Another area of concern for anti-SOA activists that WHINSEC legislation did not address is the screening of applicants. WHINSEC explains that all students are screened initially by their own governments and are then screened again by the U.S. embassies in their home countries. If there is any indication of wrongdoing in an applicant's past, this person will not be admitted to WHINSEC. While this sounds like a fair screening process, there are no congressionally mandated procedures set in place, so it is up to the State Department to ensure that it adequately checks all students. It remains to be seen how well the screening process will work in the future.

Conclusion: Congress and the Public Must Wait and See.

A great deal of congressional and public effort led to the closure of SOA and the opening of WHINSEC. Most questions, however, still remain unanswered. We do not know whether WHINSEC graduates will outperform SOA graduates. We also do not know whether Congress has established effective procedures and regulations so that WHINSEC will truly be a different educational institution from SOA. What we do know is that Congress has changed the School's name, the rest remains to be seen.

It is important for congressional leaders, SOA Watch, and other concerned citizens to maintain pressure on WHINSEC in the future. Over the next few years, there will be little information about the actions of WHINSEC graduates, given that the first class of students entered in 2001. Much of the public may forget about SOA's legacy. Nonetheless, by continuing to call for WHINSEC's closure, anti-SOA activists can maintain a spotlight on the School. In this manner, if negative information surfaces regarding the School's teachings or the actions of any of its graduates, Congress and the public will be poised to close WHINSEC/SOA once and for all.


Selected Sources:

http://www.soaw.org
 
http://www-benning.army.mil/whinsec/institute_overview.htm
 
http://mediafilter.org/caq/caq61/CAQ61manual.htmlhttp://profiles.
 
numbersusa.com/improfile.php3?DistSend=IL&VIPID=255
 
Douglas Waller & D. Richard de Silva, Running a "School for Dictators," NEWSWEEK, Aug. 9, 1993, at 34.
 
Combat in Panama; Chronology of a Crisis: 1978-89, L.A. TIMES, Dec. 21, 1989, at A7.
 
Eliot Minor, Thousands Attend Annual Military School Protest, ASSOCIATED PRESS, Nov. 17, 2002.
 
Telephone Interview with Steven Schneebaum, Vice Chairman, WHINSEC Board of Visitors (Dec. 18, 2002).

 

Congressional Records:

146 Cong. Rec. H9641-02 (2000)
146 Cong. Rec. H3346-02 (2000).
139 Cong. Rec. H7267-07.
140 Cong. Rec. H3770-01 (1994).
140 Cong. Rec. H3770-01.
139 Cong. Rec. H6296-04 (1993).
139 Cong. Rec. H7267-07 (1993).
139 Cong. Rec. H7267-07.
139 Cong. Rec. H7267-07.
139 Cong. Rec. H7267-07.
139 Cong. Rec. H7267-07.
146 Cong. Rec. H3346-02.
139 Cong. Rec. H7267-07.
140 Cong. Rec. H3770-01.
140 Cong. Rec. H3770-01.
139 Cong. Rec. H7267-07.
141 Cong. Rec. H13142-01 (1995).
142 Cong. Rec. H5832-02 (1996).
143 Cong. Rec. E1660-04 (1997).
143 Cong. Rec. H6808-03 (1997).
143 Cong. Rec. H5401-03 (1997).
144 Cong. Rec. D998-01 (1998).
143 Cong. Rec. E1660-04.
143 Cong. Rec. H6726-02 (1997).
143 Cong. Rec. H6726-02.
143 Cong. Rec. E1660-04.
143 Cong. Rec. H345-01 (1997).
143 Cong. Rec. S6727-03 (1997);
143 Cong. Rec. S6728-01 (1997).
144 Cong. Rec. S9724-02 (1998).
144 Cong. Rec. E2266-01 (1998).
145 Cong. Rec. H641-02 (1999).
145 Cong. Rec. H590-01 (1999).
145 Cong. Rec. H6424-04 (1999).
145 Cong. Rec. D889-01 (1999).
146 Cong. Rec. H9641-02.
146 Cong. Rec. H9053-01 (2000).
146 Cong. Rec. H9053-01.
146 Cong. Rec. H9053-01.
146 Cong. Rec. H9053-01.
139 Cong. Rec. H7267-07.
 

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